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Growth hacking continues to be a focus of many of the world’s fastest growing companies.  But most of the case studies on growth hacking are focused on demand generation and quickly ramping revenue. But I have encountered many companies recently that also have a strong focus on building their brand awareness. Most of these companies want to build a brand in a short period of time with a relatively low budget. In other words they want to hack their brand.

The motivations for wanting to build a brand quickly vary.  Some companies are seeking to be acquired. Others are planning for an IPO. Some simply understand the correlation between being well-known and getting lots of inbound leads. Whatever the motivation to build a brand, companies often struggle with building awareness quickly.  Most companies over-spend and under-deliver on the objectives.

I think it is possible to hack your brand.  You don’t need to spend a lot of money to build awareness quickly.  You don’t need to purchase Superbowl television ads or have someone parachute out from low Earth orbit (think Red Bull).  But you do need to take a non-traditional approach.  Below are seven brand hacking techniques that I recommend for marketers in the software and technology space:

1) Be an Educator

Stop selling and start educating. A special bond is formed between a teacher and a student. A good teacher fosters a level of trust, loyalty and appreciation that is extremely challenging to build with other techniques. You can be educator of millions on the web. To do this you will need to product lots of educational content in various different formats.

Here are some ideas.  Write a “For Dummies” book that readers can use to come up to speed on a topic in two hours.  Start a blog with non-promotional content that helps people do their jobs better. Write lots of “What Is,” “How to” and “Why” articles. You will quickly gain a large subscriber base that no and follow your brand.

Create an educational microsite that explains the fundamentals of your market segment. Enrich the site with explainer videos, free online courses, buzzword glossaries and educational downloads. Don’t mention your products. Minimize references to your brand. Use a separate domain name. People will find it easily because it will rank well in search engines and gets lots of inbound links.

In your education efforts don’t just target prospects or your customers. Target everyone. Even if someone does not have an immediate buying need they will remember the value you provided and your brand. When they do have a need they will return.

2) Write a Book

People love books and authors. You gain instant credibility when you say you have published a book (regardless of its quality).  Despite the widespread popularity of blogs, videos and web content, decision makers at companies still rely on books for education and ideas. Your book should not only tell the story of your company, but more importantly tell the story of the big problem you are trying to solve. There are different story lines, but many go like this:

There is a big problem in the industry. If unchecked the problem will result in workplace inefficiencies, market capitalization declines, job losses, global pandemics…. There have been several attempts to solve the problem. These have all failed. But now there is  an answer. Enter your new approach. And it will work better because of reasons 1, 2 and 3. Customers A, B and C are already witnessing the benefits of the new approach. Here is how to get started with this new approach.

Writing a book can be intimidating. Books don’t need to be 300 pages long. Lots of authors are publishing ebooks that are only 50-100 pages in length.  These days there are numerous online publishing platforms that Do-It-Yourself authors can use.  If you don’t have time to write a full book start with a Jerry Maguire memo on why your industry needs to fundamentally change its approach. Publish it your website or blog.

3) Create Your TED Speech

You don’t have to receive an invitation to present at TED to create that style of presentation. Create the pitch then record it on YouTube or post it on your website. To create a TED-style presentation will require a different approach than you make have taken to other speeches.  The pitch cannot be about your company and its products.  Instead, you will need to tell a story about how you are changing the status quo.  The pitch could be educational.  It could be visionary.  It could be entertaining.  But it must be interesting.  Ideally, you would be able to show how your technology is going to save the planet.

You will need to keep it short. TED speeches are no more than 18 minutes. Invest time in creating great slides. Use eye-popping photographs, awe-inspiring videos and credibility-building info graphics to keep the audience engaged. Keep text on the slides to a minimum. This style presentation should be easily understood by the general public. It should not be targeted at people in your industry or your customers. Think about how a mainstream news reporter would cover it.

Review it with small audiences. Start with people that know nothing about your products or your industry. Have someone sit next to you and take note of when viewers first glance down at their iPhones. Hint – this is when you are starting to lose attention. Rework that section of the pitch. Note when people smile, people gasp and people yawn. Ask for feedback from the audience. Iterate, iterate, iterate until you have a killer presentation that will hold attention for 18 minutes.

4) Influence the Influencers

Find out who the 10-20 most influential people in your segment are.  Who is the short list of people that everyone seems to be listening to?  Is it a partner at Deloitte, a reporter from Fast Company or an equity analyst at JPMorganChase? Who are the ones shaping opinions about vendors, technologies and standards?  Your list will probably include analysts, journalists, bloggers and consultants.

Get them to spend a day with you and your leadership team.  Suck it up and pay the $15-$20K daily consulting rate. Force them to sit in your conference room to listen to your story.  Persuade them how your approach is different and more likely to succeed. Ideally they will walk away not only educated, but inspired.  And they will then “name drop” you to their contacts during formal presentations and casual conversations with end-user customers.  Being mentioned by a GigaOm analyst at DreamForce will create an instant buzz around your company. Being included in Gartner’s Cool Vendors report will put you on the map.

If you really want to double-down on this approach consider bringing a big-name consultant on-board to advise you. You may have to spend $50K-$100K. But the payback will be clear when Guy Kawasaki writes a blog post about you or when Geoffrey Moore has a slide on you in his next keynote.

5) Partner with Non-Profits

Find the associations and standards organizations that are the most influential in your industry. Examples might include Grocery Manufacturers of America, American Bankers Association, National Association of Professional Engineers or the International Air Transport Association. The best ones to work with are those who have your customers as their members.

Once you find the right one get involved. Chair a committee. Run for the board. Moderate a panel at a conference. Host a meeting at your offices. Invest in sponsoring one of the in-person events. Underwrite this year’s pivotal research study – the one with the facts and figures that everyone will be referencing in next year’s business plan. Become a key player on one of the working committees so you can present to the membership at webinars and at conferences. All these will create an unusually high level of visibility for your brand at a relatively low cost.

Over time you should also build relationships with the leaders of the association. These types of organizations often have unique access to C-Level executives and government officials. They can open doors with old-school techniques.

6) Rock Star Customer

Find a “rock star” customer that has demonstrated game-changing results from your product and will give you a testimonial. Take them on a roadshow. Speak at industry conferences. Pitch reporters. Do webinars. Talk to analysts like Gartner, Forrester and IDC. Decision makers in all industries are always interested to hear how their peers solved a problem. As a result case studies are always amongst the most well attended sessions at trade shows.  And case studies are amongst the most widely read type of marketing collateral.

Of course, finding the customer willing to engage in these activities is often the hardest part. Ideally the customer itself is interesting. Don’t pick a company that makes petrochemicals, food enzymes or ball bearings. Instead look for a fast growing, trendy company such as Uber, Square, Evernote or SpaceX. A more mature but still interesting organization such as Chipotle, UnderArmour or Virgin Airlines will work nicely as well. People always turn out to hear representatives from these organizations speak because the first half of the presentation is usually the story of the company’s path to success.

Next, you will need to find the individual within the company who can act as the spokesperson. Look for an up-and-coming mid-level executive that is seeking to make a name for him/herself. Assess how you can help with their journey to build a personal brand in the industry. Teaming up with this type of individual will not only give you a testimonial, but a loyalty and a long term relationship.

7) Social Media

The fastest way to hack a brand is to create a viral video or launch a wildly successful social media campaign. However, I won’t spend much time on social media for two reasons. First, there are thousands of blog posts on how to build awareness through social media. But second, it is almost impossible to predict what will work on social media. Even if you identify what works for another company attempts to replicate others’ successes rarely works. I am a strong advocate for investing time in social media. However, I would argue that techniques #1-6 above offer a more predictable method for generating awareness.

Steve Keifer

Steve Keifer has led marketing and product management teams at seven different SaaS and cloud providers ranging from venture-backed, early-stage startups to multi-billion, publicly traded companies - including several that experienced hypergrowth, filed IPOs, and reached unicorn status. In Bantrr, Steve shares many of the best practices and lessons learned from building and scaling marketing organizations. Topics include new category creation, brand development, and demand generation.

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